The Little League Baseball World Series again shows why the pros could learn a lot from the young players who idolize them.
“The problem is you guys forgot how much fun this is. You’re Major Leaguers—don’t you understand? You guys get to play baseball everyday. What could be better? Baseball is made for kids. Just go out and play and have fun.”
—Little Big League (1994)
When the Kitusana All-Stars of Japan crushed the Little Leaguers of Goodlettsville, Tenn., 12-2 on Sunday to win the 66th Little League World Series Championship, it may not have seemed like the most extraordinary of sports moments. Any game that ends by virtue of a mercy rule—Japan’s 10-run lead clinched it in the bottom of the fifth—is probably a bit short on dramatic tension.
Yet there was no denying that this was a game worth watching until the not-at-all-bitter end. It is hard to find a sporting event that emits more good vibes that actually sustain themselves through all the hype than does the LLWS. No matter how many times ESPN ran the promos of kids from different teams running together through the Williamsport fairgrounds, eating kettle corn, and playing carnival games, it still worked. When the announcers repeated again and again that “everyone’s a winner”—or, the contrapositive, “there are no losers here”—it actually rang true. Because not one of these kids acted like a loser. For many reasons—this last one above all—a glimpse into the Little League World Series proved far more satisfying than a season’s worth of Major League foibles.
First, despite the lopsided final, this LLWS had plenty of exciting moments and heroics. In two days, there were two walk-off wins, a no-hitter, and an historic upset (see Uganda, below). The U.S. final on Saturday featured a one-inning, 10-run rally to tie the game. And, regardless of the score, the championship game had all the cheesy drama of any good, or for that matter awful (i.e., great) baseball movie, with the scrappy team of underdogs from Goodlettsville, Tennessee (population 15,921), going against the indomitable team from Tokyo that had given up three runs in four games.
The Japanese team had a ringer named Kotaro Kiyomiya, a six-foot, 206-pound, 13-year-old kid who can blast 300-foot home runs and also pitches up to 80 miles per hour (which, adjusting for the distance from the mound to the plate, etc., is apparently like 104 m.p.h. in the Majors). For his size, bat, and ability to pitch, the ESPN commentators had no problem comparing him to Babe Ruth. At one point, Kiyomiya would be on the mound staring down a 12-year-old batter who was more than a foot shorter and weighed less than half as much.*
*In general, though, it did seem bizarre that they kept listing each kid’s height and weight—like some kind of pubescent developmental snapshot.
The Little League World Series is a true world series. In addition to teams from eight regions across the U.S., eight teams from around the world also qualify.
Lugazi Little League from Uganda made history as the first-ever African team to make it here, and ESPN made sure to pile on plenty of human-interest stories about the kids’ impoverished hometown, where the life expectancy barely exceeds 50, and their improbable journey to Williamsport. When the team actually won its first game, it was like an Olympic made-for-TV moment, only without Ryan Seacrest. So, like, better.
And the way the 16-team tournament is structured guarantees that one American team and a team from as far away as, say, Japan, will meet in the final matchup.
Winner Takes All
Speaking of which, the LLWS Champion is determined in a single game. None of that Major League World Series monotony of Games One, Two, and Three, where nobody can win anything, or that stilted drama of Games Four, Five, and Six, where one team might be playing for the championship, the other just to stay alive. No, it starts and ends with Game Seven: everything is on the line for both sides. Yeah, I know baseball is a game of endurance and a team’s true quality is measured by its ability to win consistently over time. Whatever. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my favorite sports to watch are pro football, college football, and college basketball—and none of them has a series playoff format.*
*Not that college football has (much of) a playoff format, period.
The Love of the Game
Then, of course, and most importantly, there’s that whole child-like passion that, unfortunately, you simply can’t count on from adults. That includes a respect for the letter of the rules and for the spirit of the game. For example, every player on every LLWS team wore a yellow shoulder patch that declares, “I Won’t Cheat!” Imagine one of those on Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa. Or Jose Canseco. Or Manny Ramirez. Or Melky Cabrera. Or…you get the point.*
*Or Roger Clemens.
But simply playing by the rules isn’t all that admirable—it’s understanding why the rules are there, and playing with the character they are supposed to engender. When Tennessee pitcher Justin Smith lost control of a fastball and it glanced off the hand of a Japanese batter, Smith went over to see that he was okay—and then smiled and shook his (other) hand. A few innings later, Tennessee’s Brock Myers became the first American player to hit a home run in five consecutive LLWS games. Among those waiting to high-five him at home plate was the opposing pitcher, Kiyomiya, who hadn’t given up a hit all game, or a run all series.
Yes, the immediate goal in sports is victory. But the essence is fair play. Walter Winchell once wrote, “The only thing Americans love more than sports…is sportsmanship.” We don’t just root for our teams when they win. Remember? It’s supposed to be “how you play the game.” For these kids, as competitive as they are, winning isn’t the most important thing, and certainly it isn’t the only thing.
So perhaps it’s not so much that Little League is better or more pure than the Big Leagues, as much as that it represents what is—and could be—best about baseball at any level.
There’s always that hope for the next generation: From coast to coast—Bryce Harper to Mike Trout—Major League Baseball is more of a kid’s game than it has been in awhile. (Of course, maybe I just feel that way because I am now at the age when most Major Leaguers retire.)
During introductions, every Little Leaguer gave his name, his position, and his favorite Major League player. I hope those Big Leaguers were watching—they’d see how much they have to live up to.